Driverless taxis complicate the ride-hailing business model, but they offer new opportunities that some companies are racing to seize.
In the early stages of autonomous vehicle use, analysts expect the technology to be used mainly in ride-hailing networks. Without drivers who must be paid and given time off, these networks will become easier to deploy around the clock, increasing competition and creating demand for services that can keep vehicles running efficiently to maximize profits.
But without human drivers, some things get harder to handle.
"There are certain expectations when you get into an on-demand car — mostly that it's clean and you can trust it," said Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive and transportation mobility at consultancy EY. "Those companies that fall short of meeting our expectations and our needs will lose."
Waymo, Google's self-driving car company, is believed to have been first to test a driverless fleet on U.S. public roads in October. And on Nov. 7, Waymo announced that members of its ride-hailing pilot in Chandler, Ariz., will be able to use vehicles without a safety driver in the next few months.
The company is laying a foundation to ensure its vehicles stay in operation while driving a high number of miles, signing deals with Avis for oil changes and cleaning, and with AutoNation for long-term maintenance and repairs.
As Waymo's competitors begin to finalize plans for self-driving taxi fleets, companies are rushing to meet back-end demands that may arise from these networks, hoping to establish a permanent place in the self-driving economy.
"Companies are working to create a reality for these scenarios and not be at the mercy of the future," Schondorf said.